Crush Your First Challenge Before Breakfast!

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Most students drag themselves out of bed with their alarm screaming. They begrudgingly climb into their uniform and slump downstairs to eat breakfast while still in a semi-stupor. By the time they step outside to face the day, they've already missed one of the best opportunities to improve their health, boost their mental focus and develop physical and mental resilience. If they invested just five minutes of that first hour to perform the simple routine outlined below, they would see huge gains in their academic and personal life. Curious? Read on!

There is a ritual practice that has been observed by the First Peoples of North America, the Scandinavians, the Japanese - indeed most cultures across the globe, as a means of developing steely resolve and self-mastery. While the details vary from one tradition to another, there is one common feature: immersion in freezing cold water.

In modern western society, cold shower therapy has been gaining traction for a few years now and the scientific evidence is flooding in to show just how many benefits this simple activity provides.

The process couldn't be any simpler - step into your shower, turn on the cold tap and stay under the stream of water for 5 minutes. Job done!

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But what is simple, is not necessarily easy. Most people reading this will never take action and take a cold shower, and of the small number of you who do, fewer still will turn this into a daily practice. Why not? Because most people are not prepared to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Most people will flinch away from the cold, from even the anticipation of the cold, and retreat to their comfort zone. That's fine - to each their own. But let me explain why you might consider building cold showers into your morning routine - so that you can at least make an informed decision.

The Gifts of Cold Water

There are a host of benefits to taking cold showers first thing in the morning:

  • Improved alertness and mental focus, accompanied by a calm state of mind (due in part to the release of norepinephrine).
  • Relief of anxiety and depression symptoms. The mild nerve stimulation has been found to activate the 'blue spot' of the brain which has an anti-depressive effect.
  • Increased recovery from muscle soreness - very useful for those of us who also have a physical training regime.
  • Improved lymphatic system drainage and immune function.
  • Improved circulation and heart function.
  • Improved skin and hair health.
  • Stimulation of brown fat which is critical to healthy weight management.

While all of this is good news, none of these benefits are as significant as the last gift that cold shower therapy has to offer. As the ice-cold stream first hits your skin, every instinct will be driving you to sound the retreat. You'll find all kinds of reasons why you should call an end to this experiment in personal resolve - you'll try to persuade yourself that you should delay until next week, or you'll tell yourself that it is pointless, weird, even dangerous (unless you have an underlying heart condition, it isn't!). What you do next is vital - it will literally shape the kind of life you are destined to experience.

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If we want to grow, to live to our potential in life, then we must put our self-discipline in the driving seat and not our fears or the impulse to seek out safety and security. We can't have it both ways - growth means staying the course, even when things get tough. It means developing the ability to lean into discomfort when doing so will serve us in the long run. What better training ground than a stream of freezing cold, indifferent water? It doesn't care if you become the best version of yourself or settle. It doesn't care if you stick or quit. It is the perfect training partner - a mirror for you to come face to face with yourself each morning...and all you have to do is stand there! 

If you can plant your feet and breathe through the first half minute or so of sensory fireworks (it is perfectly natural to have a brief period of hyperventilation and shock but this settles) you'll come to really understand, in an embodied way, the truth that most of our suffering is not due to what happens to us in life, but due to how we respond to what is happening. As you learn to relax, calm your breathing and open yourself up to the experience, you'll see that the worst part of taking a cold shower is your resistance to the experience. Get your mind out of the way and it's really not so bad.

Five minutes later, you can step out of that stream of water, having confirmed that you are not a victim of circumstance but can chart your own course through this life. You can hold fast because your will is becoming stronger every day - and that strength is transferable to other areas of your life. The old adage is true - those who do what others will not today, will be able to do what others cannot, tomorrow.

Take the 30 day challenge

So, if you'd like to join me (not literally, that would be weird!) in taking on the practice of morning cold showers, why not take on the 30-day challenge? Here are some hints and tips that might help you get started.

Download and print off the 'Tests of Life 30 Day Cold Shower Challenge' accountability chart. Pin it up somewhere in your home and make sure your friends and family know about it - there's nothing like a public declaration of intent to keep you on task! Each day that you complete the 5-minutes, put a tick in the next box and try not to break the pattern. If you do miss a day for any reason, print off a new sheet and start again!

If jumping straight into the cold is a bridge too far at first, set your timer for 6 minutes and start with a warm stream of water, then gradually turn the temperature down as that first minute progresses. Don't let this minute extend any further - the mind is sneaky like that!

Don't just guesstimate 5 minutes - use a timer and only get out when the alarm sounds. For extra kudos, don't rush in getting out - take your time!

As you prepare for the shower, watch your mind carefully. Notice your inner dialogue and the various ploys and tricks that come up - this resistance will quieten down as the weeks pass - until then, label the thinking patterns that emerge, acknowledge and then and ignore them! This is where the real value of this exercise is to be found.

Expect the first minute to suck! Three minutes in, things will feel a little better. Immediately after the shower, you can enjoy a satisfying afterglow and tingling sensation, along with the pride that you have crushed the first challenge of the day.

As you get dressed, notice how much more alert you are. You've taken charge of the start of your day. Now go out into the world ready to kick ass, take names and become the best version of yourself. And don't feel you have to stop after 30 days - cold shower therapy is the gift that keeps on giving!